Mugs of Good Cheer

If winter has finally started to seem unjust, it's time for a hot toddy

Pracna on Main
117 Main St. SE, Minneapolis; 612.379.3200
Pracna on Main

The Times Bar and Cafe
201 E. Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis; 612.617.8098
www.timesbarandcafe.com

Hot, highly caloric booze: Minnesotans' wintertime little helper
Allen Beaulieu
Hot, highly caloric booze: Minnesotans' wintertime little helper

W.A. Frost & Company
374 Selby Ave., St. Paul; 651.224.5715
www.wafrost.com

It's still the time of year when the skies turn dark around 4:00 p.m., car tires become permanently gray, and if you're like me, it's impossible to stay warm for very long. I have tried many tactics to battle this affliction, including such dubious tricks as standing in hot water in the bathtub, setting the toaster on high and placing my hands over it (though not at the same time), and living in several layers of pajamas. Can the oven be a supplement to your barely working heating system? Many college students would answer, yes!

And then of course, there's drinking. I'm not talking about slamming barely distilled moonshine or Jack Daniels with the bravado of a trucker. I'm talking about the warm alcoholic beverages that are a triple threat against freezing to death this time of year: They warm you internally because they're hot; they make you care less about being cold via inebriation; and finally, their high caloric content adds a nice layer of body fat, much like the protective ring that a tree grows each year. And so it is that I have come to view venturing out into the cold and dark in search of tasty warm drinks as a truly worthy pilgrimage.

It was a particularly slushy evening the night my drinking partner and I made our way across the street to Pracna on Main. I was immediately reminded that sneaker-wearing can be perilous this time of year as I stepped off a curb into a puddle that appeared to be an inch deep, but in actuality was one of our 10,000 lakes. The likelihood of a St. Bernard wandering by with a flask of whiskey seemed remote, so I trekked on in the soggy hope of finding a cold-foot remedy, or at least something to take my mind off of it.

Dating to 1890, Pracna is one of Minnesota's oldest standing bars, and my friend and I had a good time trying to match up the old turn-of-the-previous-century photographs on the wall with the reality of the dark, wood-lined pub. Pracna has its charms. Its tables offer Legos for the socially awkward, it's right next door the to St. Anthony Main Theatre, and, most notably, the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows offer a lovely riverfront view. (It's also great if you're trying to watch your car at the meters to avoid ticketing.) All around, friendly and comfortable.

Too bad none of the drinks I tried that night fully reanimated my soggy innards. The mulled wine was somehow watered down and overly sweet at the same time, and seemed closer to sangria than the grownup chill-chaser the warm, spiced beverage is supposed to be. The Vanilla Bean (a coffee, Irish cream, whipped-cream-type thing) was functional, but the coffee and the alcohol content were both too weak to create a buzz. The Winter Warmer (hot cider and Grand Marnier) was served with an orange slice and was tasted pleasantly like sweet, spiced orange tea, but also strangely smelled less like cinnamon and more like hard liquor.

The slush and puddles had hardened into choppy gray patches by my next Arctic search for weekend antifreeze, when I wandered in to the Times Bar and Café. Generally I visit the Times for its winning trifecta of beer, fondue, and jazz, but after losing a layer of face skin walking from my parking meter into the warmth of the Times, I was happy to discover its respectable warm drink menu. Although the selection isn't vast, the half-dozen or so offerings are made with good intentions and skillful execution. My personal favorite from the list was the raspberry truffle: dark coffee, Bailey's Irish Cream, Chambord (a raspberry liqueur often added to champagne), and dark crème de cacao (a chocolate liqueur). As the name suggests, it's like a Godiva truffle and easily works as a dessert replacement.

Crucially, the coffee was high-quality. Which leads me to believe that its other coffee-based drinks are good bets. In addition to the Times Coffee (Bailey's, Kahlua, Frangelico, and nutmeg) there are playfully named selections such as the Grinch and the Mint Kiss--both with hot chocolate and mint-flavored ingredients. The overall ambience is cozy, be it the black-and-white checkered front room, with its dark woodwork and hidden angles, or the larger dining room and bar--a decidedly hunter-green room complete with a linoleum patch for those ambitious enough to bust a move during a jazz set (though most nights the heaviest dancing I have ever witnessed involved people contently swaying at the bar).

The following still-unthawed week I wandered into W.A. Frost, the dew-eyed bunny of the world of romantic Twin Cities dining. Located in a turn-of-the-century brownstone on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, the restaurant features architecture as grand as one would expect from a Victorian-era structure. There are spacious rooms with high tin ceilings, a mirror-and-marble bar, outdoor patio, and walls adorned with giant paintings roughly the size of a Mini Cooper. It's easy to feel like a speck in the place while sitting alone at a table for two, as I unfortunately did while waiting for my terribly late drinking friend. I wonder how often the staff plays armchair psychologist to weepy, stood-up diners; surely any place with as much romantic potential as W.A. Frost could, as the truth became known, turn as cold as the frosted glass windows facing the street?

But eventually my friend arrived and all was forgotten as we perused a menu of 15 or so warm drink options, including coffee, cider, wine, and warm-milk varieties. The mulled wine was a favorite: good Cabernet fortified with brandy and simmered with spices and currants. It's served with a slice of orange, and has a playful fruity taste that contrasts nicely with what too often tastes like an unstable competition between cloves and cheap wine. Also tasty was the Nutty Irishman (Frangelico, Baileys, coffee, and whipped cream), and the Peppermint Patty (Rumplminz and hot chocolate) is an ideal drink for anyone looking for a way to mainline the flavor of Girl Scout cookies.

Other tasty selections with curious names include the Hot Apple Pie (Tuaca, apple cider, cinnamon, and whipped cream), the White Nun (latte-style frothed milk spiked with Kahlua and brandy), and old-fashioned selections such as hot buttered rum and wassail bowl. After a couple of drinks and some shared cheese plates, I had admittedly warmed to the place; it's scaled at a level appropriate for a giant, but there are plenty of little warm touches, including fireplaces scattered about the room like a well-placed pause in a poem, and twinkling garlands and Christmas wreaths. Even the swimming-pool-sized painting didn't seem so overwhelming once I realized that there were also paintings about the size of my hand right beside it.

In the end, I have to say that I've learned that a warm drink is only as good as the sum of its parts. No amount of cinnamon or orange slices will rehabilitate cheap wine that has sat open in the fridge for several days. You can pour all the Irish cream and Kahlua in the world into hot coffee, but if the coffee is stale, then that whipped topping is a crown for a kingdom of lies. In reality, what makes a great warm drink, or any drink or meal for that matter, is a beverage where all of the ingredients could stand alone. A drink shouldn't have to aim for extra credit, but the simple fact of the matter is the good ones do.

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